Diversity in research comes at a high price

19th May 2000 at 01:00
The Executive's decision to withdraw core funding from the SCRE is lamentable, say Margaret Kirkwood and Brian Morris.

IT IS now almost two months since The TES Scotland announced the Scottish Executive Education Department's decision to end its long-standing association with the Scottish Council for Research in Education. In effect, this means that the SCRE will cease to be a national research centre and will have to compete with other research bodies for all of its funding by 2003.

Since the SCRE's core funding has for some years been restricted mainly to supporting teacher research and its dissemination, the extent to which it has been able to operate as a national research centre is debatable.

If the Executive was looking to create "diversity" by its decision to withdraw core funding, that can be argued to exist already. If it wished to support the dissemination of research and engagement by teachers in research, as Sam Galbraith, the Education Minister, apparently does, then, by this decision it has removed the national body which did just that.

There have been no indications as to how these tasks will be done in future. However, if they are to be taken over by the SEED, then we find ourselves on familiar territory where control is taken to the centre in the name of diversity.

It is unclear who decided to withdraw the core funding, and why. Nor has the process of decision-making been made known. Given the response from the SCRE itself, it is difficult to discern any process of consultation. Certainly it was as much of a surprise to the Scottish Educational Research Association as it was to other organisations, such as the Educational Institute of Scotland. This form of decision-making is inconsistent with a Scottish Parliament which claims a commitment to open discussion and negotiation before decisions are reached.

Nor does the manner of the announcement of cutting funds suggest a proper regard for the SCRE workforce, many of whom are on short-term contracts and who already know the realities of "diversity" and the research market. The SCRE can be justifiably proud of its contribution and deserves better.

It is ironic that at a time when the Executive claims education as its top priority, our national educational research centre should effectively be abolished. The timing of the decision is also interesting. The SERA is preparing to host the European Conference on Educational Research in September in Edinburgh. This is possibly the largest educational conference yet held in Scotland, involving more than 1,000 researchers. How are Scottish researchers meant to interpret the meaning of this decision to their peers in Europe?

Questions also follow about what is to be the place of research in educational policy-making and practice in Scotland. Surely educational research has a crucial role to play within the devolved Parliament, if a repeat of the "policy hysteria of recent years is to be avoided? It is worrying to find Mr Galbraith apparently accusing Scottish educational researchers of using "second-rate science" and of missing out on the basic principles of sound research, resulting in teachers ruining children's education by adopting ill-researched methods. There are unfortunate echoes here of the "discourse of derision" which substituted for reasoned discussion and debate in education in the recent past.

Nothing is to be gained by introducing the rhetoric of blame into the discourse on educational research, and everything to be lost. For educational research to thrive in Scotland, partnership and trust are essential. These exist already between the SERA, the SCRE, the Educational Research Unit of the SEED and other bodies such as the research and intelligence unit of the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, the Scottish Further Education Unit and the Scottish Consultative Council on the Curriculum.

The education departments and faculties in Scottish universities and teacher education institutes are also active in promoting teacher research, mainly through their higher degree programmes. This work is very much in keeping with Mr Galbraith's desire to see teachers doing classroom-based research in order to improve practice and raise attainment. In spite of the fierce competitive climate surrounding bids for research contracts, there is still a generous sharing of expertise among the educational research community in Scotland. There is also a high degree of commitment to Scottish education and to doing high-quality research.

A full debate must now take place on the infrastructure required in Scotland to deliver high-quality educational research on relevant issues, properly disseminated and carried through into policy and practice.

The need for strong partnerships and continuing discourse is very evident if shared understandings are to emerge, and it is clear from recent events that there remains a great deal of work to be done in this area. The research council, operating as just another commercial research outfit (assuming it remains financially viable) would lack the status to play a central role in this process. Therefore the decision on its future funding should be reviewed urgently and the wider debate established.

The SERA has organised a forum during the ECER 2000 conference to bring together a range of interests including teachers and lecturers, educational managers, policy-makers and Scottish politicians, parent representatives and educational researchers, to discuss the role of educational research in Scotland.

We hope for a full and open debate for all our sakes.

Margaret Kirkwood is senior lecturer in computer education at Strathclyde University and president of the Scottish Educational Research Association. Brian Morris is lecturer in education at Stirling University and past president of the SERA.

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